Blog Entry

Journey of the Magi / Eliot

December 18, 2010 by , under Spiritual Growth.

Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot (Collected Poems, 1909-1962, The Centenary Edition, Hardcover ISBN: 0151189781) Available on www.amazon.com

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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This is a great poem for the season, and it has very much to do with spiritual growth and change. We can either move towards change and growth, towards the truth that we see, or we can shrink back from it and try to pretend to ourselves that we don’t see what we see or understand what we understand.  We can choose to remain small and try to hide from our true stature and greatness, our true aliveness, from the full reality that beckons to us…

Here is a comment that I wrote about the narrator of the poem, Journey of the Magi, on one of the poetry websites.  I can think of other ways in which to interpret this poem, but this is something that came to mind as I read it again, today:

What I take from the sense of sadness and resignation in the narrator is that he had this experience. He made this difficult journey. He was searching for something, but when he found it, he could not bring himself to fully accept the implications. This reminds me of the ending of that Rilke poem “You must change your life”. The narrator is unwilling to do this, and because of this he cannot enjoy the reality or the fruits of a true rebirth in Christ. He remains in the liminal zone of betwixt and between, neither here nor there. Physical death would be a relief to him because he can no longer enjoy the old but neither can he truly embrace the new. To do so he would have to sacrifice the comforts of the old and the familiar and leap boldly into the new, into the arms of Christ.

The good news is that the time of change is every moment.  As Eliot says in another of his poems, East Coker, “And every moment is a new and shocking valuation of all we have been.”  As long as we are alive, we can change.  We can decide to lean into the truth, rather than away from it. And we are not alone down here; we can ask God for the help and guidance we need.

(Another possible meaning of this poem is that the narrator did change.  He did accept the new revelation — but because he had to return to his old country, he now feels estranged from their ways and practices.  He has changed, but they have not.  He feels isolated — as if a stranger in a strange land — so he looks forward to death as liberation.)